Brawl Breaks Out in Ukrainian Parliament Over Language Law
On May 24, debates in Ukraine’s Parliament, the Rada, turned physical after members of opposition parties blocked access to the podium for the ruling Regions party lawmakers who sought to defend a language law, as can be seen from this video. The law had been proposed by the pro-Russian Regions party, under pressure from Moscow. The party’s head, President Viktor Yanukovych, whose mother tongue is Russian, promised to elevate Russian to the status of the second state language during his campaign for the presidency in 2009. However, he did not press the issue after coming to power in February 2010. Since then, Moscow has reproached Yanukovych for not delivering on his election promise and has complained that the language rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine are being violated.
According to the draft of the law, Russian-speaking children would be allowed to receive all their basic schooling in their home language. Also, people in areas where Russian predominates would no longer have to demonstrate a strong command of Ukrainian to work in regional administration. If passed, this law would entrench Russian as a “regional language”, which, according to opponents of the law, would eventually lead to Ukrainian disappearing from use. However, Russian is already a de facto regional language, as it clearly dominates in the Donbass mining area near the eastern border with Russia—which happens to be Yanukovych’s power base—as well as in the southeast and the Crimea. Ukrainian—currently, the sole state language, in accordance with the country’s constitution—predominates in the centre and in the west. The rift between Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions correlates very closely with voting patterns (see the map posted above). As can be seen from this map, during the 2010 Presidential Election, Russian-speaking areas voted for Yanukovych, whereas Ukrainian-speaking regions gave their votes to Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party. A similar split was observed during Legislative Election of 2006 and 2007, when Russian-speaking areas voted predominantly for the Regions’ Party, whereas Ukrainian-speaking areas gave their votes to the Timoshenko Bloc and “Our Ukraine” party. In fact, the split has been established as early as the 2004 Presidential Election, when Viktor Yanukovych received support mostly from the same areas in the south-east, while the Ukrainian-speaking zone voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Yushchenko. Given this entrenched language-voting correlation, it is no surprise that opposition parties view the proposed language law as a cynical move by the Regions Party to win back disenchanted voters at the forthcoming parliamentary election in October and to mobilize Moscow’s support by keeping Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Ukraine is not the only post-Soviet country where proposed changes to the linguistic status quo provoke an emotional debate. In February 2012, Latvia held a referendum on the issue of making Russian a second official language. As noted in an earlier GeoCurrents post, the election attracted a large turnout, more than 70 percent of the electorate. The proposition was decisively defeated, gaining only about a quarter of the vote, chiefly in the urban areas of the country and in the largely Russian-speaking southeastern region. One significant difference between the Ukrainian and Latvian situations, however, is that in Latvia knowledge of the national language is a prerequisite for citizenship, whereas Ukraine imposes no such requirement. As a result, in Latvia Russian-speakers with no knowledge of the national language cannot vote, whereas in Ukraine they can. It is, therefore, more likely that the new language policy will be adopted in Ukraine, the recent outburst of “unparliamentary behavior” notwithstanding.
Update (3 July 2012): Seven MPs from the Our Ukraine–People’s Self-Defense Bloc conduct a hunger strike in Kiev over this proposed language law, which has passed in the second reading.If the law is signed President Yanukovych, Russian will gain the status of the regional language in 13 out of 27 regions of Ukraine.
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